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A room with a view

My childhood bedroom looked nothing like that of  artist Elaine Reichek ’64BFA, but in her recreated childhood bedroom, on view at Manhattan’s Jewish Museum  through October 20, it doesn’t matter. In there, you almost have to think about your childhood, your parents, and who your parents wanted you to be. Reichek uses her installation, a room done in what she describes as “ersatz Dutch colonial” complete with Ethan Allan furniture (the 1776 Collection), to open a conversation about identity, aspirations, and assimilation.

Reichek’s actual 1950s bedroom, in a “big colonial house in Brooklyn,” was devoid of anything Jewish, despite her Jewish heritage. But this version of her room, called “A Postcolonial Kinderhood Revisited,” includes quotes from friends and family members jarringly familiar to anyone with a Jewish connection, incongruously embroidered onto samplers that wouldn’t look out of place in a New England farmhouse circa 1800.

Reichek quotes herself on only one sampler: “I used to fall asleep every night thinking of places to hide when the SS came. I never thought this was the least bit strange.” It’s a doozy, hanging next to the lovely canopy bed. And she embroidered a telling Emma Lazarus quote onto the cushion of a chair with the Yale insignia: “Jews are the intensive form of any nationality whose language and customs they adapt.”

In an interview, Reichek says her own years at the Yale School of Art were shaped more by her gender than by her religion. There were three women in her class of 25 and she was three years younger than most of the other students. There were only a few other women on campus, she had no female professors in the art school, and her larger-than-life male classmates included Chuck Close ’64MFA and Richard Serra ’64MFA.

How does Yale factor into the exhibit? Reichek says it’s part of who she is,  where she got her “grounding” as an artist—and met her husband, George Clark Engel Jr. ’66LLB, then a student at Yale Law School. (Her brother-in-law, John Price Engel ’68, and father-in-law, George Clark Engel ’32, also went to Yale.) Even so, she laughs about “the glorification of the male tradition” that shaped her experiences. Not that being Jewish wasn’t an issue. When he was at Yale, Reichek’s brother-in-law, also Jewish, was told by a JE classmate to “Jew somebody down.” That quote is on a particularly lovely sampler.

When the show was first mounted in 1994, says Reichek, “it was extraordinarily controversial.” The culture wars were raging, but Jewish identity politics were a small part of the conversation. She even got a postcard from two nuns who chastised her for forsaking her religion (which Reichek says she hasn’t). At the time, Reichek saw her installation as a way to “talk about the kind of things you internalize to assimilate.” No big stir this time around, says Reichek—“not because we’ve figured everything out, we’ve just stopped talking about it.”

Filed under Elaine Reichek, School of Art, Jewish Museum, John Engel
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